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The moral of the story is...

Stories – whether factual or fictional – shape our perceptions of the sea. And they can affect the way we use the ocean. A lecture series at Kiel University and a book based on it show how complex the subject is.

Kite surfers on the beach
© pur.pur

A place of longing or a threat, a diverse habitat or a landfill: the sea is not just the sea. Our perception of the sea is largely shaped by stories and narratives.

"The unending ocean", "the treasures of the deep sea", "the freedom of the seas" – phrases like these shape our perception of the sea. And they also determine our behaviour. "If the sea is endless, then you can throw rubbish into it," said Professor of Political Science Aletta Mondré, explaining that the image we have of the ocean matters. This image is essentially formed by stories and narratives about the sea. "There are countless travel reports, log books and novels relating to the sea. We are interested in different perceptions of the ocean and the role of narratives in raising awareness of a more sustainable use of the ocean," added Dr Ulrike Kronfeld-Goharani, research associate in the Kiel University Research Group on International Political Sociology (KUIPS).

Together with Dr Franziska Julie Werner, who coordinates the Ocean Education Initiative of the priority research area Kiel Marine Science at Kiel University, they organised the lecture series "Der Mensch und das Meer: Wie Erzählungen unseren Umgang mit dem Ozean beeinflussen" (people and the sea: how stories influence the way we treat the ocean) in the winter semester 2019/2020. "We looked at the sea from completely different perspectives," said Kronfeld-Goharani. Among other things, they considered the question of whether story-telling made certain actions possible in the first place. Building upon this, they discussed what type of story about the sea developed and taught and supported an awareness of sustainability. Presentations from this lecture series were published in a book at the end of 2020. It contains a series of stories and narratives from which conclusions can be drawn about how we handle actual challenges in marine and climate policy and reveals possible courses of action. Subjects include the role of the ship as a workplace or as a staged experience in the cruise industry and stories of whaling, fishing and plastic rubbish.

The example of fishing clearly shows how fixed ideas can be. In his presentation, Dr Christopher Zimmermann of the Thünen Institute of Baltic Sea Fisheries, Rostock, considered "the narrative of seas that have been fished empty". "He set out which species are affected by this, what impact fishing quotas have and provided verifiable data. However, he was unable to get his facts across – for example, how the proportion of overfished EU stocks dropped by 19 percent from 2004 to 2014 – because everyone was convinced that the sea is overfished. It is not possible to change attitudes like this simply by providing information," stressed Mondré. And Zimmermann himself refers to this in his article on "The perception of fishing as the cause of all evil has become so established, so very much a part of general knowledge, that providing evidence to back up statements is completely unnecessary." It is therefore all the more important, he said, to examine the narratives and separate the justifiable from the purely ideological.

It is a fact, according to Mondré, that "stories are a very important medium for conveying information and communicating behaviours. I can identify with a character, get emotionally involved and approve of or reject the behaviour." Another advantage of the story-based approach is that complex scientific connections can be presented in a way that is understandable to everyone. "You can also add in some tension," said Kronfeld-Goharani, "because stories that are simplified from a scientific perspective but are told in an exciting way are more likely to stick in the mind."

It is certainly possible that phrases like "the ocean is about to collapse" or "in 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the sea" will dominate our perception of the sea in future. The extent to which approaches to sustainable use of the ocean can take hold instead remains to be seen.

Author: Kerstin Nees

Further reading: Ulrike Kronfeld-Goharani, Aletta Mondré, Franziska Julie Werner (Hg.): Der Mensch und das Meer. Wie Erzählungen unseren Umgang mit dem Ozean beeinflussen. Wachholtz Verlag Kiel 2020